Is Fear Holding You Back? Try This

04/01/2013 08:29 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

You hate your job, but you are afraid to look for a new one, or (gasp!) change careers altogether. Or the relationship you are in isn't making you happy, but you are afraid to leave it. Or you are single and lonely, but you're too afraid to get out there and start dating. Does any of this sound familiar? I'll bet it does.

Americans have a well-earned reputation for risk taking, but these days we are something of a timid lot. Our reluctance to stick our collective neck out has everything to do with the psychology of motivation -- specifically, how we think about the goals we pursue. The problem, in a nutshell, is simply this: when making decisions, many of us have been focused much more on what we have to lose than on what we might gain.

Whenever you see your goals -- whether they are professional or personal -- in terms of what you have to lose, you have what's called a prevention focus. When you are prevention-focused, you want to stay safe, avoid mistakes, and fulfill your responsibilities. You want to hang on to what you've already got and keep things running smoothly. You aren't open to taking chances, even when that chance is a chance for happiness. If fear is holding you back, odds are you've been thinking only in terms of prevention.

If, instead, you see your goals in terms of what you might gain, you have what's called a promotion focus. Promotion focus is about getting ahead, maximizing your potential, and reaping the rewards. It's about never missing an opportunity for a win, even when doing so means taking a leap of faith.

In my new book with Tory Higgins, Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing The World For Success and Influence, we describe two decades of research showing how being promotion- or prevention-focused leads to having different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, having a promotion focus leads to speed, creativity, innovation, and embracing risk, while having a prevention focus leads to accuracy, careful deliberation, thoroughness, and a strong preference for the devil-you-know.

So how can you learn to embrace risk for the sake of your future happiness, particularly when risk taking doesn't come to you naturally? The answer is surprisingly simple: When you think about making a change, focus only on what you have to gain, and banish all thoughts of what you might lose.

For example, you could take a few moments to list all the ways in which you will benefit by making the change. Repeat them to yourself when you feel the fear kicking in. Most importantly, shut out any thoughts about what could go wrong -- just refuse to give them your attention. With practice, this thought-training will become easier and eventually automatic. Taking a chance, believe it or not, can become second nature to you, if you think about your goals in the right way.

For more by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

What's your focus? Try my new free online assessment to see if you are promotion-focused or prevention-focused. Then check out the free gifts you'll receive for pre-ordering my new book, FOCUS.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.